Ginger Nuts of Horror
Today folks Michael West has kindly offered to drop by for chat. So why not read on and discover if Michael can discuss what happens at Mo*Con, his love of Godzilla, and what famous film of 1977 kick started his writing career.
Hello Michael how are things with you?
Great to be here! Things are quite wonderful. Very, very busy, but I’m having a lot of fun.
Can you please give the readers a little bit of background information on your good self?
Certainly. I’m a member of the Horror Writers Association and President of its local chapter, Indiana Horror Writers. I wrote my first novel while still in high school (A work that will never, ever see the light of day. Awful. *shudder*), then I went on to graduate from Indiana University with a degree in Telecommunications and Film Theory. And since that time, I’ve written several much better novels, a multitude of short stories, and some non-fiction articles and reviews for various on-line and print publications.
What do you like about yourself the most?
I like my sense of humour. It’s dark and offbeat, like me.
What is the one thing about yourself you would like to change, if you could?
Sometimes I don’t stop and think things through. I’ll get excited about something, and I don’t allow myself any time to think of the repercussions, I just dive right in. It has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. My first publishing contract, for example. I was so excited that someone wanted to publish my work that I did not research things as well as I should have. As a result, I spent years trying to get the rights back to that story. That would be my first piece of advice to new writers: research a publisher before submitting to them, and definitely before signing on any dotted lines.
I’ve got to say naming your pet bird Rodan, and turtle, Gamera is a stroke of genius. What is your favourite Godzilla movie?
Thanks. When I was a kid, my favourite was Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974). It was originally called Godzilla Vs. the Bionic Monster in the states, but Universal was doing The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman television shows at the time, and they said that they were the only ones who had the right to use the term “Bionic,” so the name was changed to Godzilla Vs. the Cosmic Monster. It wasn’t until it was released on video years later that it was marketed under the original Japanese title. Now, my favourite would be Godzilla vs. King Ghidora (1991), which involved time travelling aliens who wanted to create a bigger, stronger Godzilla to destroy Japan before it became a superpower. However, I’ve really become more of a fan of the 90’s Gamera films: Guardian of the Universe, Advent of Legion, and Revenge of Iris. Great writing, very dark, adult-oriented stories, and some pretty amazing visual effects.
Why horror, what is it about the genre that holds your appeal? Can you remember what ignited your passion for all things macabre?
I don't really know where it originated from, but I’ve loved Horror for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to trick babysitters into letting me stay up late to watch Night Gallery episodes and Hammer films. I subscribed to Fangoria and read every Stephen King novel or Clive Barker short story that came out. And whenever a new Horror movie was released, I was always first in line to buy tickets.
There is just something so wonderful, so primal, about fear, and that release you get when something scares you and you scream or jump out of your seat. It's the same rush you get when you ride a really great rollercoaster. And, like any really great rollercoaster, as soon as you get off that ride, you want to get right back on it again.
And what is it about the genre that you dislike?
Cardboard characters. I think the most important element of Horror is creating good, believable characters. You can have the most original plot in the world, an amazing monster or villain, but, if the reader doesn’t care about the people in your story, they’re not going to read it. That’s why a lot of movies made from Horror novels fail. The filmmakers concentrate on the Big Bad—the vampire, demon, what-have-you—and the characters get short shrift. When you really care about the people in a story, you get lost in the narrative and you feel things on a very visceral level. That’s the type of connection I strive for in my own writing.
If you met someone who said they don’t read or watch horror, which book and film would you give them to change their opinion?
Good question! My mother is someone who does not like Horror, but I told her to read Stephen King’s The Stand, and she absolutely loved it! I also recommend The Exorcist; such a great story of faith in the face of evil. Both are strong character pieces, and as I said before, I think that is the key: getting people invested in the characters before you scare the Hell out of them. As far as movies go, it would probably be Jaws or Poltergeist for the same reason. So many great characters in Jaws and Poltergeist; and Poltergeist is one of the best movies about the American family ever made. It just also happens to be one of the best Horror movies ever made.
I’ve also heard from people that they’ve recommended my books to their friends and parents who don’t normally like Horror, which makes me very happy...that I can introduce people to the genre I love, and with any luck, get them to give it a chance and to not be so dismissive of a story just because it comes with the Horror label.
Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you and your writing?
Wow…I’ve had so many influences over the years—everyone from Clive Barker to Richard Matheson to Rod Serling—but, growing up in the eighties as I did, I’d have to say Stephen King was…well…king. I just loved the way he could take a normal, everyday, real-life place or situation and make it into something horrific. Going to the grocery store? Well, you’re going to run into a monster. Oh, and that quiet little town you live in? Overrun by vampires. The hotel you’re staying in and the car you’re driving right now? Haunted. That’s something I try to do in my fiction as well, making the real fantastic and vice versa.
Can you remember what first motivated you to start writing, and has your motivation changed over the years?
I saw Star Wars in the summer of 1977, and I immediately began to write movie scripts. Growing up, I had dreams of being the next Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, making movies with my parents’ video camera in the back yard, films with a lot of imagination and very little money. And when my imagination finally outgrew those budgets, I turned to writing prose. Today, my motivation isn’t much different. I still have stories to tell.
Your first novel was published in 2003, had you been writing for a long time prior to this, and if not why did you get into the game relatively late in your career?
I’d been writing screenplays for local television programs for years, but it took a long time before I really liked my own prose. I can’t even read the stuff I wrote early on without cringing. Awkward, clumsy, and the dialogue...don’t even get me started on the dialogue. It’s always been difficult for me to craft believable dialogue. I can write what a character is thinking, feeling, or doing all day long with no problem, but once they open their mouths…my progress slows to a crawl. That’s become easier over time, but it’s still something I struggle with. My advice to beginning writers is to read your work out loud. If you can’t say it without tripping over your own tongue, something needs to change
And how would you describe your writing style?
I have a very visual style. Perhaps it is a result of my background in film and television, but when I write, I see everything play out in my head like a movie, and I want the reader to see the same movie I’m seeing as much as possible, so I tend to be very descriptive. I also choose my words carefully. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t necessarily take a thousand words to paint a vivid picture. Sometimes it just takes three or four. That’s what I love, finding just the right words to convey everything I want to express.
Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of your writing. How do you go about the writing process? Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow?
I do a little of both. I tend to have an ending in mind when I start. That's not to say that the ending doesn't change half a dozen times by the time I get there, but I need to have a goal, something to work toward. I don't tend to outline the novel as a whole, but when I get to the next chapter, I first jot down the key things that happen in it, then I fill in the prose.
Once you have the basic plot worked out, how does the story evolve, does the plot lead the characters, or do the characters lead the plot?
Again, it is a little of both. Sometimes the plot will change the way the characters behave, and sometimes the characters will do something unexpected that changes the entire plot. For example, in the novel I’m working on now, one of the minor characters was supposed to die very early on, but then she went and pulled a taser out of her purse and zapped her attacker. Now she’s a main character. That kind of thing throws the whole plot out the window and puts you back to square one.
And how do you come up with your characters? Have you ever used your writing as a way of getting back at someone?
They all just spring from my warped little mind. That’s the fun, and somewhat twisted part of being a writer. All the characters are you, even the most depraved villains. You take elements and experiences in your own life and fictionalize them to add depth to your characters and give your situations a shot of reality. Because you know how you felt when something happened to you, you can convey that through the eyes and emotions of your characters and make the entire narrative more believable and authentic.
I’ve never used my writing to get back at anyone in particular, but it is very therapeutic to be able to kill people on the page. It allows you to release all kinds of negative energy in a safe way that will not get you divorced or land you in jail.
And how do you come up with your characters names?
I’m always writing down names. Interesting last names. Uncommon first names. Some come from movie credits, CD liner notes, the phone book…I mix and match them until I find the right match for the right character.
Do you work on one title at a time or do you work on multiple stories?
I try to work on only one title at a time, to stay focussed on the story at hand. But there are moments when other stories just will not wait their turn, and I start to get these flashes of action or character traits or what-have-you from another project. When that happens, I take notes. I scribble down a lot of notes.
How do you edit, do you edit as you write, or do you edit after each draft is finished?
I do both. I self edit as I write, then I send sections of the manuscript off to pre-readers who give me their feedback as well. Then,
when it is all done, my editor at Seventh Star goes over it all and gives her suggestions so that, by the time it reaches the readers’ hands, it is as perfect as we can make it.
How much research do you do?
A lot. I believe that even Fantasy and Horror need a foundation in reality. To bring as much realism as possible to my projects, I’m always interviewing people, drawing on their education and talents in areas I know little about. I also read extensively, both for what I’m working on now and for future projects.
Do you have any rituals that you go through when you write, or when you have finished the final draft?
I’ve got a coffee mug covered in artwork from my short story “Jiki.” I usually fill that up and turn on music, either film soundtracks or 80s music, I can’t work when it’s totally quiet. I also like the room to be as dark as possible, so I will turn off lights or close blinds before I start. Then, when I finish a novel or short story, I will go to my favourite restaurant and order my favourite thing on the menu to celebrate. And then I start the whole thing over again.
You are the president of THE INDIANA HORROR WRITERS ASSOCIATION, is there much of a horror community in Indiana?
You would be surprised how many of us there are. We are one of the more active regional chapters in the HWA. Every year, we hold a winter writing retreat. We have our annual convention: Mo*Con. And we have a presence at many of the area conventions and literary / paranormal events.
What does the organisation do for the members?
We help writers find their voice, share market news, and promote terrifying work.
When you meet up, do you ever sit around a campfire and tell ghost stories?
As a matter of fact, we do have a reading and critique session at our annual winter retreat. Some really good stories come out of that event every year and find their way into various magazines and anthologies.
And can you tell us about any of the going ons at Mo*Con, or does, what happens at Mo*Con, stay at Mo*Con?
Well, much of what happens at Mo*Con should stay at Mo*Con, but you can find far too many pictures and videos of it on the web. We have panels where we discuss race, religion, sexuality, feminism, and other hot button topics and how they relate to us as writers and to our fiction. It is all quite thought-provoking. And then, at night, there is much drinking and laughing, and at some point, Brian Keene (The Rising, Ghoul) whips everyone’s ass at Magic the Gathering.
Wide game was your debut novel; can you tell us about the inspiration for the book?
I’d done a short story in college that was inspired by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and I was thinking of expanding it into a novel, but I really didn’t know how to go about doing it. Then I took a road trip with a high school friend and we started talking about our upcoming class reunion, all the things we’d done in the 80s, and the things we wished we could have done differently, and suddenly…there it was. I decided to make the novel about a man who returns home for his class reunion, who returns to the site of a great tragedy, and then is forced to deal with the horrors of that night once and for all.
A few of the reviews have mentioned that the book has a very cinematic feel, were you conscious of this as you were writing the book?
It wasn’t anything I was doing intentionally. It’s just the way I write. I’m so used to writing screenplays that, when I write prose, they feel like screenplays. I’m writing the movie that is playing in the cinema of my mind. That’s why the trailers have such a cinematic feel to them as well. I actually get to film sections of the books.
It deals with a high school reunion, as someone who ducked out of their high school reunion; can you tell me what is it about them that can bring so much terror to grown men and women?
Your high school days are like a good friend who died in a horrible car crash. You want to remember them fondly, the way they used to be. You don’t want to see the wreck that everyone has become: gaining weight, losing hair, divorced, working in a down-and-out job. You want to remember all those hopes and dreams; all that promise. And you want everyone to remember you in the same way. Or maybe high school was Hell and you’re doing the wise thing to duck out, because only an insane person would ever voluntarily go back and relive it.
Was any part of the novel autobiographical?
As a writer, everything that you see, hear, and experience gets used at one time or another. If you’re a horror writer, it is often negative experiences that rear their ugly heads in your work. In The Wide Game, the main character is involved in a terrible car accident. This is a blow-by-blow retelling of an accident I had as a teenager. In Poseidon’s Children, the events of September 11, 2001 are addressed by a few of the characters. And in Cinema of Shadows, one of the characters states that she was in Intensive Care for a week after she was born because she turned blue. This happened to my oldest son. A Horror story is much more frightening if you can believe that it could happen, that it could happen to you.
Looking back at the nine years since it was first released, how fondly do you look at the novel?
There was a time when I really wanted to distance myself from it. There were all the issues with the publisher, but aside from that, I thought my style had matured so much since writing it, that I’d finally found my “voice,” and the novel just didn’t fit in with the rest of my body of work. When I got the rights back to it a few years ago, however, I basically re-wrote it. Now, with the version that Graveside Tales has released, I find that I like it quite a bit.
How would you say your writing as developed in this time?
My dialogue is stronger, more authentic, as are my characterizations, and I really feel that I’m much more careful in my word choices. I think my sense of pacing is much tighter as well; now the action flows smoothly.
Your second novel, A Cinema of Shadows, is your take on the parapsychologist investigating a haunted house novel. What prompted you to set it in a cinema?
I’m a huge movie buff, and I worked as a cinema manager for a time. One of the cinemas I managed was haunted. If you walked in, and it was completely dark, you could see the glowing outline of a person sitting in one of the seats. Someone told me that it was the spirit of a man who had a heart attack and died right there in his chair.
Then, years later, I started going to classic films at an old movie palace in Franklin, Indiana. The Artcraft. It had fallen into disrepair, but now it is being restored to its former glory–the original Art Deco design, the neon, the huge marque with the chasing bulbs. This is what cinemas were like before the multiplexes, and now they are quite rare. Just amazing!
So the more I thought about it, the more I wondered…if the cinema I managed was fairly new and already had a ghost, how many spirits might be trapped inside one of these cinemas that had been around for decades? And that’s when I realized that a crumbling movie palace would be a unique and amazing setting for a Horror story.
As with Wide Game, Cinema of Shadows, a lot of the reviews focused on the strong characters that inhabit your novels. In your opinion what makes for a good character?
For me, a good character has to be relatable. You need to feel like they are someone you might know in real life: the neighbour, the classmate, the guy at work who keeps to themselves and lives with his mother by the old motel off…wait... Anyway, they can’t be pure good or pure evil, because, in reality, nobody is like that. The hero will have their negative qualities, their quirks and foibles, and the villains will have their charming qualities, their charismatic traits. Everyone is the hero of their own story, even the most despicable villain.
Out of all of your characters do you have a favourite?
Wow, that’s a tough one. That’s a bit like asking me which of my children I love more. The characters I like to write about tend to be the ones who become fan favourites: Robby Miller from The Wide Game and Cinema of Shadows, and Horror Show and Earl Preston from Poseidon’s Children. They are all very different people, but they are strong and know more about the world than the people around them. They also have very odd senses of humour, like their creator.
Before we talk about your new novel, I would like to touch on your short story writing. You have written a lot of short stories that have been published wherever good stories are published. Is there a reason as to why you are more prolific as a short story writer than a novel writer?
In the beginning, I wrote a lot of short stories simply because that’s what sold. Then, after editors became familiar with my work, I began to get invitations to write for various anthologies and magazines. And the more I wrote, the more invitations I got. Soon, I had enough short fiction to put out a collection of my own work, and the success of that led to my book deals. Now that I’m putting out two novels a year, my time is more limited, and I’ve had to say no to several short fiction projects, but it’s hard to say no when you get to be in the same table of contents with Ramsey Campbell and Joe Lansdale, so I still put out a few shorts a year.
Do you approach short story writing differently to that of a novel?
They are entirely different skill sets. You have a lot less real estate to work with in a short story, so you have to develop your characters quickly, you have to get the action rolling and build up speed to the climax as fast as you can, like a plane running out of runway. With a novel, you have much more room to explore character motivations and themes. That said, it is far easier to kill off all your characters in a short story, because the reader has so much less time invested in them. If you kill off the main character at the end of your three hundred page novel, you get hate mail. Lots of hate mail.
Do you have a favourite short story of yours, and why?
Again, I don’t know that I could single one out, but there are a few that I’m most proud of: “Jiki,” my ode to Asian Horror; “To Know How to See,” my first real stab at Sci-fi Horror; and “Goodnight,” which was named Best Horror Short Story of 2005 in the annual P&E Readers Poll. Those stories hold special places in my heart.
You have published a collection, Skull Full of Kisses. Are the stories in this new, or is it a retrospective of your career to date?
It is a retrospective of my career up to the date it was published, February 14th, 2010, but there are two new stories in it: “Einstein’s Slingshot,” which is about a group of people trying to survive a natural disaster while being stalked by something unnatural, and “Sanctuary,” which is set in Tibet during the Chinese invasion.
For those not familiar with your writing, would you recommend someone starts with this collection?
Yes. I think short stories are a good way for readers to be introduced to a writer’s work. They’re the literary equivalent of a peep show: they give you little glimpses of a writer’s style and let you decide if you want to pay to see more. And, even if you don’t like everything on display in a collection, you can usually find something to suit your taste.
So let’s talk about your new novel from Seventh Star Press, The Legacy of the Gods, Book 1: Poseidon’s Children. I am really, really looking forward to reading this. For those of you who haven’t heard of this book, please check out the great trailer that has been done for the book, talk about whetting your appetite.
alking of the trailer, who produced it, and did you have much say in its production? It was produced by Darkrider Studios out of Bloomington, Indiana. They do amazing work, don’t they? I wrote the script for the trailer, was on the set for the filming, and when it was all put together, I got to approve the final edit. Darkrider has worked with me on all of my book trailers, but I really think this is the best one yet. Can you tell us what the story is about, and what the inspiration was for it? I don’t want to give too much detail—I hate spoilers, and there are a lot of twists and turns to this story—but here is the synopsis: "Man no longer worships the old gods; forgotten and forsaken, they have become nothing more than myth and legend. But all that is about to change. After the ruins of a vast, ancient civilization are discovered on the ocean floor, Coast Guard officers find a series of derelict ships drifting in the current—high-priced yachts and leaking fishing boats, all ransacked, splattered in blood, their crews missing and presumed dead. "And that’s just the beginning. "Vacationing artist Larry Neuhaus has just witnessed a gruesome shark attack, a young couple torn apart right before his eyes….at least, he thinks it was a shark. And when one of these victims turns out to be the only son of Roger Hays, the most powerful man in the country, things go from bad to worse. Now, to stop the carnage, Larry and his new-found friends must work together to unravel a mystery as old as time, and face an enemy as dark as the ocean depths." The idea for Legacy of the Gods series came to me in a dream—a very vivid, very strange dream. Some dreams fade as soon as you open your eyes. Others stick with you for days. This particular dream has been with me for over twenty years. It involved an ancient stone temple, with odd markings etched into its walls, and a very seductive sea-creature. Most people have fantasies about movie stars and musicians; mine get directed by H.P. Lovecraft. Go figure. How would you describe the novel, in terms of the writing style, one of the reviews for it describes it as “It’s Clive Barker meets Clive Cussler”, would you say this is a fair comparison? As a life-long fan of Clive Barker’s work, I’m naturally thrilled and flattered by such a comparison, even if I don’t feel worthy of it. But yes, I can see why readers would say something like that. It has some of the same themes Barker has explored in his work, and it has the fast-paced, high-seas adventure element present in Cussler’s novels. Before there was a sub-genre called “Urban Fantasy,” it was very hard to categorize Poseidon’s Children. There are aspects of Lovecraftian Horror and the supernatural, some Science Fiction ingredients as well, but as a writer, I’m more concerned with telling a good story than what category it fits in.
Why do you think the allure of Lovecraftian horror is still so strong even after all these years? I think he tapped into some timeless themes: the idea that, compared to the vastness of the time and space, human beings are so small and insignificant, and if we knew anything about the true nature of the universe, we would lose what little sanity we have. And, for some reason, I just love tentacles. Where you ever concerned about writing a novel inspired by such a rich legacy? Not really. As a writer, it was a lot of fun to create such complex back stories for Poseidon’s children, Hades’ disciples, and the other clans in the series. This world has limitless possibilities, and I love getting the opportunity to explore it with these novels. When is the book published? And in what formats is it available? The book is out now in quality paperback, and it will be made available in all eBook formats in the coming days and weeks. There is also a limited edition, signed hardcover. Only 75 of those have been printed, and once they are gone, they are gone. This is part 1, how many parts are there going to be to the series, and can you tell us anything about the future instalments? Right now, there are a total of four novels planned for Legacy of the Gods series. The next chapter, Hades’ Disciples, will pick up soon after the events of Poseidon’s Children and will be action-packed! After that, there will Zeus’ Warriors, which will set up the finale, Olympus Returns. Each instalment will explore more of the history and mythology set up in Poseidon’s Children as the characters work together, and independently, to stop the end of life as we know it. The book is published by Seventh Star Press, how did you come to work with these guys? I do a lot of conventions each year and had the pleasure of crossing paths with author Stephen Zimmer. I loved the quality of his novels and the marketing muscle that his publisher, Seventh Star Press, provided those titles. Then other authors I knew and respected like Steven L. Shrewsbury and Jackie Gamber came aboard, and I knew that this was a family that I wanted to belong to. In this day and age of self publishing, and E-books, what does having a publisher like Seventh Star Press, bring to the table? Seventh Star sees the importance of digital media. They understand it and embrace it, which is important. But, while some small presses have gone “digital only,” Seventh Star continues to share my love of physical books, and they put out some beautiful physical books—limited hardcovers with full-page illustrations, and quality paperbacks. They also know how to market their authors’ works, which is something quite rare in the small press world. There are many small presses out there that put out amazing books, a lot of self published books as well, but nobody knows about them, so few people buy them and read them. It is great to see the awareness that Seventh Star builds for each of its titles, and wonderful to hear from people all over the world who have actually read them. With nine years in the business, do you have any more advice for other authors? I think it’s important for writers to have readers who aren’t fans of their particular genre. Someone who likes horror is far more forgiving of the conventions of horror, where as someone who doesn’t read or watch the genre will take you to task on aspects of plot and character that don’t ring true. And, if these readers suggest edits, listen to them. As a writer, you have to learn to kill your babies. You may write a truly amazing passage, or a wonderful subplot, but, if they don't serve your story--if they bog down your action or obscure your theme, you need to make the edit. It's never easy, but in the end, the story will flow much better because of it. Which brings us to one final bit of advice: never throw anything away. I’ve cut things from novels that I’ve later turned into stand alone stories or parts of other novels. Just because something isn’t right for Project A doesn’t mean it won’t be a better fit for something in the future. Can you tell us about any future projects that you are working on? I’m writing the next Harmony, Indiana novel right now as we speak. It's called Spook House. The Harmony fire department works to turn an old farmhouse into a haunted attraction. Growing up, there was always that haunted house put on by the local Jaycees to raise money. So much fun! But, since this is Harmony, the house they've chosen sits atop a gateway to another dimension, and there are some nasty things on the other side of that doorway that have been waiting a long time to get out. Robby Miller (The Wide Game, Cinema of Shadows) really takes center stage this time out. He's been a supporting player up until now, but this is his novel, and we get just a little bit of set-up for the climactic battle of good vs. evil that will take place in the final Harmony novel, Field of Screams. And I am editing an anthology called Vampires Don’t Sparkle! for all those Horror fans who want to read gritty tales about vampires who don’t mope and brood about going to prom. That will be out sometime in 2012. It’s been an honour having you over Michael, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Poseidon’s Children, do you have any final words for the readers? Thank you for having me, and I hope you will enjoy the book. I just want to thank all of my faithful readers for their support. Writing is a very solitary process, just you and your laptop with no idea how your work will be perceived. It's very gratifying for me that so many people enjoy what I do, that they're actually out there waiting for the next thing to come out, and I can't wait to give them more. In the meantime, however, faithful readers can always get up-to-date information on me and my work at my website, http://www.bymichaelwest.com.